Ensuring mental health in a time of crisis

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Residents who call an Embrace Living Community their home have many reasons why they enjoy the overall experience so much. One of those reasons is the day-to-day socialization that takes place at the communities, much of which comes through the numerous social programs the organization puts in place. When the global pandemic hit earlier this year, Embrace Living Communities had to reevaluate its programs to keep residents safe but also have their mental health as a top priority.

“I have to give kudos to the many employees who work onsite at our communities,” says Dave Opitz, Senior Director of Mission Services, whose responsibilities include overseeing the day-to-day operations of eight Embrace Living Communities. “They are the main conduits to our residents and have done an outstanding job keeping spirits up during a tough time.”

Meeting Individual Needs

Community team members make a point of contacting each resident at least once a week if not more, so they can respond to each individual’s unique needs. “It’s important that residents know and feel that their needs are being met and that they are being cared for,” says Dave. “Even though the residents are very independent, it’s still important to check in and see how we can help them.”

Team members have assisted residents with everything from paperwork for stimulus checks to connecting them with local food banks so they have access to healthy food that is delivered to their door. “In addition, the team goes out of its way to celebrate birthdays and other big events with cakes and cards which means the world to the residents,” says Dave.

In Florida, the community coordinator partnered with local high schools and colleges to start a pen pal program. Students get credit for courses by communicating with residents via letters and cards.

Creating Safe Socialization

Team members have gotten creative during COVID as they find new ways to safely bring people together and keep them engaged.

“One community holds prayer groups in the parking lot to help keep people socially distanced,” says Dave. “While others have used their beautiful outdoor spaces to provide activities such as gardening and book clubs.”

Another community has gotten the competitive juices flowing by having weekly crossword puzzle contests, giving out prizes to the winners.

Using Technology to Communicate

Technology has played a big role in providing new ideas and channels for communications. Community social service coordinators meet monthly on Zoom to share information and ideas for the betterment of their residents.

Embrace Living Communities has also provided a tool, called AASC (American Association of Service Coordinators), that allows coordinators to communicate directly via email and/or text with all residents who sign up. The tool translates messages into 17 languages, so each resident simply chooses the one they prefer.

“This tool has been very valuable as we’ve communicated CDC guidelines updates, inspection information and other needed messages,” explains Dave.

Dave and other organization leaders have also been advocates to bring more technology to affordable housing residents. “We need Congress to understand that social isolation is a growing concern across senior housing communities,” says Dave. “We have worked with U.S. Representative Katy Porter to bring a bill forward for $50 million so seniors have access to technology, such as the internet and to tablets. This helps lessen isolation as they are able to communicate more frequently with their families. So there is some good from all of this as awareness regarding these issues is growing.”

Preparing for the Months Ahead

The residents at senior housing communities understandably are growing restless as the COVID crisis continues. With the days growing shorter and the weather turning colder, the mental health of residents remains a priority.

“It’s important that our team members stay strong for their residents,” says Dave. “Fatigue is a real thing, but our team has stayed upbeat and been very creative in finding new ways to engage their residents.”

The teams are also working to initiate new programs, such as resident compute centers that are senior-friendly as well as wellness programs.

“The work done to date has kept the COVID case numbers very low within communities,” says Dave.

Ralph Gaines, President & CEO, arrived at Embrace Living Communities this past spring, and he was very clear that the health and safety of residents, employees, contractors and anyone who interacts with properties are a top priority. “The protocols we have put in place have been successful to date and we will continue to stay the course. This includes monitoring the public health guidelines and maintaining a consistent communication throughout our properties in order to inform our residents.” Ralph indicated relaxing certain rules and protocols could come only when it is determined to be safe for all.